1. It’s OK to make an economic return from solving social problems. There was a sea change in thinking this year; social entrepreneurs seemed increasingly fascinated by the market as a mechanism to advance their social agendas. Scott Gilmore at Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) is a case in point. PDT renamed itself Building Markets (the name transition says it all) and even created a spin-out for-profit affiliate called Anchor Chain to leverage the private sector in advancing its mission of building local supply chains. I also spoke to the founder of a leading nonprofit consultancy who confided that he wished he had founded his organization as a for-profit instead, admitting “It really doesn’t matter these days, and the transparency is a real problem for us.”
Heidi Kuhn, Roots of Peace founder, and her daughter Kyleigh are the perfect inter-generational metaphor of the times: Both aim to impact the quality of life for Afghanistan’s poor, but in very different ways. Heidi founded a nonprofit to remove landmines and help Afghan farmers tap into the market by teaching new, higher-value agricultural practices; Kyleigh created a for-profit business called Twenty Four Suns to help local artisans in Afghanistan by creating a market for them in the US.
Also, funders themselves seemed increasingly open to the market as a force for change. One foundation director I spoke with openly contemplated investing in for-profits alongside traditional grants: “Why not?” she asked, “If we’re really about impact, it shouldn’t matter!”
2. Measurement is no longer optional. Measurement had its big coming out party at Skoll this year as the foundation announced its first attempt at portfolio-level measurement. The language and references this year were different too. In past years, there was always talk of “effectiveness” and “accountability,” but this year, I heard more about “returns,” “moving the needle,” and measuring “value.” Foundations and corporations alike appeared universally obsessed with measurement—no doubt due to upstream pressure to demonstrate some ROI.
I had a fascinating conversation with Andrea Coleman of Riders for Health who found the Skoll Foundation’s focus on outcomes liberating from the regime of randomized control trials imposed by other funders. It was good to see Jed Emerson (father of social return on investment) make a return to the forum and say that he was glad to see the measurement conversation finally happening in earnest.
3. We’re in an age of social entrepreneurship 2.0. This year I observed a new breed of social entrepreneur—more entrepreneur than social. These entrepreneurs (mostly nonprofits) have flipped the paradigm; they see social change more as a business strategy than as a charity program. These social entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to leverage the market to advance their social agenda.
Kiva.org is a good example. Kiva’s head of development, Bennett Grassano, and I talked about the evolution of Kiva’s strategy—going beyond microfinance to become a source for microlending to other “social markets,” such as education (for example, scholarships) and affordable housing. Ned Breslin from Water for People is another example of social entrepreneurship 2.0. Ned describes his organization’s work as creating new “water economies” in emerging markets like Rwanda and Honduras, and has leveraged the private sector to catalyze his market development efforts.